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ADHD and the Spend-to-Use Ratio

Here’s the thing about impulsive purchases. It’s not just that you spend more money than you have. It’s that you spend more money than you have on items you don’t even end up using.

Take the example of libraries. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a complex relationship with libraries.

Libraries might seem like a strange example when we’re talking about spending money. Libraries are free, right?

Cash RegisterYes, they are, which is why I highly recommend libraries as the first stop for people who tend to buy books they don’t read. But there’s a catch, and that catch is late fines.

I think people with ADHD disproportionately end up turning library books in late, and running up massive fines. The ironic thing is that not only do we spend more on late fines, but often these are books we don’t even get around to reading!

In fact, that’s one reason you might end up with a big late fine: “Oh, I haven’t read this yet, I’d better keep it a little longer because I know I’ll get around to starting it soon.”

So it’s not just that we spend more. It’s that we spend more and use the item less. The spend-to-use ratio is high.

It’s the same for pretty much any type of impulsive purchase. What makes the purchase impulsive is that:

  1. The spending is unplanned and outside of your budget.
  2. The use of the item is also unplanned. If you just woke up one morning and said “I’m going to buy a tortilla press,” the chances of you ever actually pressing a tortilla are lower than if you had a long-standing and deliberately considered interest in tortilla making.

Basically, impulsivity double teams you. It leads you to spend money without considering the financial big picture, and it also leads you to spend money without considering the big picture of when and how often you’ll actually use whatever you’re buying.

There’s another factor here, which is that the more stuff you buy, the less opportunity you have to use any individual object. If you own seven shirts, you’ll wear each shirt once a week, but if you own thirty, that’s once a month! As you buy more of something, spending goes up, but use goes down because you have more things to use.

So, ideally – and, yes, this really is an ideal, but it’s something to aim for – buying something means thinking about the spend-to-use ratio. Not just the price (“oh, that’s not too expensive, I can afford that!”) or the use (“wouldn’t it be cool to have … ?”), but whether the cost is worth it given how much you’ll actually use it.

The point isn’t to feel guilty about impulsive spending. In fact, if we’re being honest, life where every single purchase you make is well-reasoned isn’t necessarily much fun. One solution is to set yourself an “impulsive spending” budget every month based on what you can afford. But too much impulsive spending isn’t much fun either.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some overdue library books to return.

Image: Flickr/aranami

ADHD and the Spend-to-Use Ratio

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). ADHD and the Spend-to-Use Ratio. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from


Last updated: 23 Apr 2019
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